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Brighton Fringe 2017

Low Down

On a trip to Greece last September we visited Mycenae, so I have stood at the top of the citadel, looking down across the plain of Argos towards the sea.   From that vantage point it’s obvious that Agamemnon’s fortress was located there so that it could dominate all movement through that mountainous region, and three and a half thousand years ago signal fires on the mountain tops would have carried the news of the fall of Troy …


We were sitting in the converted shipping container that constitutes Studio 2 at the Warren, and in front of us two watchmen climbed on a chair and strained their eyes to make out a distant speck of flame. A slight glimmer of light on their faces, which faded for a few seconds, and then it came back, stronger, and they had it – the message that Mycenae had waited ten long years to receive.

Just a chair to give us the watchtower, and the bare walls of the shipping container behind them hardly visible through the wreathing smoke. There’s smoke aplenty in this production – a permanent haze, often turned blue or a violent red as the action changed – and it felt like we were peering back across murky millennia to glimpse the characters of Aeschylus’ play.

But it’s Steven Berkoff’s modern adaptation that Windmill Young Actors have taken on, and so the actors are all dressed in military fatigues. When they fill the stage it feels like there are dozens, but in fact ‘Agamemnon’ has a cast of just eight. Most of them have character roles – Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Cassandra and the rest – but they all double up as The Chorus, so we had sequences of well-orchestrated chanting and perfectly-drilled, stylised movements.

The whole production is very physical. Apart from three chairs on the stage there’s no scenery at all, so when setting sail on a ship, for example, the eight actors come together with perfectly choreographed movements, reaching up and pulling down as they haul the ropes that raise the sail. Or in battle, on the plain in front of Troy, they square off, four against four, lunging and parrying. With their bodies silhouetted through the haze against the vivid red backlights they looked very like the stylised figures on a Greek vase – black on red – come to life in front of us.

This production could serve as a textbook for physical theatre. No scenery, as I’ve said. As Iphigenia is being sacrificed at Aulis – to appease the gods and produce a wind for the fleet – two cast members go down on all fours to form an altar, and Agamemnon’s daughter lies supine across them, head back to expose her throat to us – and to her father’s knife. It was all done in mime, but so believably that we could almost see the flash of the blade and the gushing of the blood.

Certain characters are of course more dominant in any play, but this was a true ensemble production with powerful performances from every member of the cast. When they stood staring ahead as The Chorus, chanting Berkoff’s lines and stamping out a rhythm for emphasis, they were a perfectly drilled unit. They all deserve recognition so I’m going to name them –

Zoe Alexander, Jonny Davidson, Sarah Elliott, George Jasper Kelly, Phoebe Owen, Cerys Salkeld-Green, Morwenna Silver and Henry Touray.

Windmill Young Actors works with young people from five years old to twenty, and these were obviously at the top of that age range. But that said – the power of their delivery, the emotional intensity they brought to their roles, and the clarity and audibility of their diction made them seem like a much older and more experienced group of actors.

The word ‘awe’ derives from the Greek ‘achos’ meaning fear. Aeschylus’ play about the House of Atreus is meant to produce fear in its audience, and I was in awe of the power of this production. At the opening we peered through a blue haze at the seated figure of Aegisthus – Henry Touray all in black, with wildly curly black hair – slowly spooning stew into his mouth. Then three attendants appeared from behind him, feeding him slowly, deliberately, rhythmically, with the cooked bodies of his own children.  “Here’s the bone of an animal I don’t recognise …”

So Aegisthus has reason to hate Agamemnon’s family, as does Clytemnestra when her husband slaughters their daughter.  Morwenna Silver as the Queen wore a clinging sheath of a dress over her fatigue trousers, and a gash of vivid red lipstick. She oozed sensuality as she waited to exact revenge on Agamemnon – always lit in her own pool of light, observing events from the side of the stage when she wasn’t at the centre of the action.

This being a Berkoff adaptation, the text was brought up to date with a lot of modern references. George Jasper Kelly played the Herald, who arrives at Mycenae with news of the battles at Troy. Kelly gave a bravura performance of a typical Berkoff riff on war – very physical, bouncing across the stage making the noises of gunfire and bombs and machine-gunning everyone in sight. Awesome.

When Agamemnon finally returned, Jonny Davidson very tall in uniform and accompanied by Cassandra, the Trojan princess he’s brought back as booty, Clytemnestra’s hatred and jealousy of the King and his new bedmate flashed across to the audience and pushed her even closer to their murder. Cerys Salkeld-Green’s Cassandra, tall and slender with her hair in straggly ringlets and blood already coating her arms, could see immediately what her fate was to be. She was a prophetess, remember, forseeing the destruction of Troy, but no-one ever believed her. She was correct this time, too, as she and Agamemnon stepped on to a long strip of red silk that snaked across the stage, leading to the fatal bath (also done in mime) where they both met their end at Clytemnestra’s hand.

If it’s well done, the magic of theatre allows an audience to see a distant world come to life just a few feet in front of us.  Tanushka Marah has assembled a very talented group of actors, she’s directed them brilliantly and created visual effects and settings that took my breath away – and then she’s let them loose to get on with the job.  I can’t recall a piece of theatre as gripping as this production of ‘Agamemnon’.